Nori Muster’s Betrayal of the Spirit, is an insider’s account of the Hare Krishna movement in the United States. It is an autobiographical recollection in which Muster describes the changes within the organization, and offers her hypothesis as to how and why these changes occurred. Her story begins in college, when she first encounters ISKCON, and as the book moves chronologically through time, she moves deeper and deeper into the movement. She starts as an interested observer, later becomes a member, and finally begins working in the public relations office within ISKCON. In the last part of the book, Muster paints a shocking picture of ISKCON, and concludes with her reasons for leaving the movement.
Her primary thesis is that the Hare Krishna movement she first became interested in was not the same Hare Krishna movement she left behind. As an undergraduate, Muster was looking for spiritual advancement, and she found just that in ISKCON. Instead of synthesizing her own spirituality, however, she had stumbled upon an organization that dictated to her the kind of spirituality she should have. Her ascent into the movement was quick, and at times irrespective of her own will. She allowed gurus to persuade her to become a member, to persuade her to work in the PR department, and to persuade her to cover up problems that occurred within the movement.
She describes ISKCON as an organization that fell apart after the demise of its teacher, Srila Prabhupada. He had started the movement as a sacred offshoot of Hinduism that was rooted in Bhakti Yoga. Devotees lived a strict life in which their purpose was to serve Krishna. After Prabhupada’s death, Muster postulates, corrupt and egocentric gurus failed to keep up the sacred traditions that Prabhupada had worked so hard to cultivate. The decentralization of the movement created factions all over the country. Each “zonal guru” felt that he was the true successor of Prabhupada, and conducted affairs in his zone without anyone to report too. Because of this split in power, the gurus ruled their respective zones like feudal lords, and in the process lost the very teaching that Prabhupada had passed on.
With neither a balance of power nor a system of checks and balances, ISKCON shifted away from a sacred practice, and moved towards an organization infested with debauchery. Muster’s involvement was not devoid of blame. As a member of the PR department, she helped to place a cloth over the illicit affairs of its members. Though she did not agree with the “shove it under the rug” approach, she conceded to the gurus and helped to do just that.
In the end, what was once an organization that had provided Muster with a home, a job, a husband, and a spiritual family, had turned into a suffocating situation. Conflicts of interest over her publications, and disagreement over handling “touchy issues” led Muster to leave ISKCON. She realized that her need for spirituality was not being fulfilled through the movement. Though she still believed in Krishna Consciousness, she no longer believed in the new ISKCON.
Betrayal of the Spirit raises some key questions about religion, and offers interesting answers concerning people and blind faith. Firstly, how Hindu are the Hare Krishnas? Secondly, was Nori Muster a confused young woman who fell into the arms of a corrupt organization or was she an immature and foolish woman who never learned to think on her own? Lastly, is it even correct to say that ISKCON is a religious movement?
In reference to the first question, how Hindu are the Hare Krishnas, my opinion is that they are nowhere close to understanding the basic premise behind this ancient religion, and their interpretations of the Bhagavad Gita and bhakti yoga are way off the mark. The Gita for many Hindus is a guidebook to life. It is used to make sense of life when life itself doesn’t make sense. In it Lord Krishna counsels Arjuna on topics such as duty, honor, respect, and discipline. None of these lessons seem to be valued by the Hare Krishnas. Simply chanting “Hare Rama, Hare Krishna,” wearing monastic garb, and meditating with a japa mala does not make one a Hindu. While it may be true that Prabhupada founded an organization based on a love and devotion for Krishna, the ISKCON of the 1980s was similar to Prabhupada’s creation only in name. Sexual abuse, prostitution, murder, drug embezzlement, and money laundering are hardly lessons taught by Krishna in the Gita, and I wonder what version of the Gita Hare Krishnas are reading.
As a Hindu who holds the teachings of the Gita to be sacred, it makes my blood boil when Hare Krishnas say that they are incorporating the words of Krishna into their lives. Krishna consciousness, what does that term mean? Does it mean an awareness of Krishna? Is it a love for Krishna? Does it involve a commitment to live life by his words? If that is what the term refers too, then the Hare Krishna movement is an enormous failure. From my perspective, if the Hare Krishnas never said that they were based in the Hindu tradition then I would not care about their actions, ideas, or philosophy. But ISKCON says it is a sect of Hinduism, and thus when ISKCON is mentioned, Hinduism is inferred. My problem with ISKCON arises here. If a group openly says that they are part of a tradition, then I expect them to respect that tradition. I certainly do not expect the group to bring shame to that tradition. ISKCON has a distorted view of what Hinduism is about. It talks about leading a clean life on one hand, and on the other hand, gurus are abusing their power and sleeping with little girls. I do not see what is Hindu about that.
The second question that this book brings up is whether ISKCON was so good at sucking people in that Muster got mixed up in a corrupt organization, or whether she was too naïve to realize what ISKCON was really about. In my view, she was a young woman looking for a place to belong and trying too hard to find it. She was too weak of mind to make choices on her own, and relied on her father and the gurus to make decisions for her. Soon after college she joined ISKCON. This prevented her from living in the real world. She did not have to make difficult real-world decisions; she was living in an ashram where a guru dictated what she was to do. And even in the end at the age of thirty, she relied on her father to give her guidance with her work, with her life in ISKCON, and with her decision to leave it. In my opinion she was a puppet whose strings were never fully controlled by her own brain.
Lastly, can ISKCON even be considered to be a religion? In my view, most religions (with some exceptions) don’t traverse airports and con people into giving them money. Devotees are not usually made to sell cookies in order to make a profit for a cause. Religions don’t put out cookbooks titled A Higher Taste to make money. Cover-ups about murders should not be part of a sacred organization; they belong in Al Pacino movies. This is not a religion, but rather a hoax. Its goal is not to grow spiritually, but rather monetarily.
The most disturbing part of ISKCON is not the behavior of the gurus. It is not the murders, or the headlines. It is not even its disrespect of Hinduism. Rather the most disturbing aspect is its devotees. They are like the children who followed the tune of the Pied Piper, being mesmerized by something so insane. The ability of ISKCON’s devotees to lose common sense, and become unable to separate reality from maya paints a weak and unnerving picture of the human mind. Betrayal of the Spirit provides interesting insights into a world where religion stops helping and starts hurting.